Spain: A Destination You Never Reach
Spain has always been one of my favourite countries for wine, food, and its general appreciation of life. William Gaddis, the American postmodernist novelist, once wrote that, "Spain is a destination you never reach," an observation I've always liked. A country whose full character is impossible to grasp completely, Spain is edgily placed between the slow-paced, conservative, Catholic past and the fast-paced, outgoing, urban present. This is true of its wines too; the oxidative wines of sherry and Rioja must still taste much like they did in the nineteenth century and other regions and producers adhere to winemaking traditions of the past. At the same time, coinciding with the transition to democracy after Franco, Spanish wine has been transformed in the last thirty years, with modern, clean, crisp whites emerging from Rueda, Rías Baixas, and elsewhere and even conservative regions such as Rioja producing fruity, oaky reds that appeal to contemporary drinkers.
Over the last couple of months, my wife and I have been indulging in a series of Spanish wines to refresh our appreciation of the varied styles of wines being made in the world's third biggest wine-producing country. Here's what we've been drinking and have learnt about Spain.
regions & wines
Txakoli (translated into Spanish as Chacolí) is a light, acidic white wine produced in the Basque country; it's often slightly fizzy, especially when poured from a height from the long, thin-necked bottle. There are three DOs, one of which is Arabako Txakolina. It's tiny, just 50ha, lying off the wet Atlantic coast and receiving 1,500mm of rain a year. The cool summers make grape-growing even more difficult but local growers are determined to preserve the historic tradition of txakoli. The Arzabro Txakolina winery is new, established in 2009, run by a local farming family based in the area for generations. Their txakoli ($19) is made from Hondarribi Zuri, which accounts for 85% of the grapes grown for txakoli production, and Izpiriotza Txikia (which is Petit Manseng across the French border). The wine's very zesty and acidic, with pronounced lemon and lime aromas: a good summer aperitif. ✪✪✪✪
Part of Rioja lies within the Basque country, but on the other side of the Cantabrian mountains where it's drier (500mm of rain) and warmer. Rioja is the most famous of Spain's wine regions and is known for its red wines, but white wine is made too. Traditionally, the whites are oxidative, oaky, and mature, but an increasing number of modern wines are made, usually from the Viura grape (called Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) alongside a form of Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca, and Tempranillo Blanca. The Acodo Blanco 2010 ($30) from Basilio Izquierdo is a nice combination of old and new: it's five years old but still has fresh green and citrus fruits; it hasn't seen any oak ageing but has been left on its lees for eight months, giving it a nutty, yeasty character traditionally associated with white Rioja. ✪✪✪✪
Rioja is traditionally a blend of vineyards from different parts of the region and of different grape varieties - which is why this blend of the four major black grape varieties interested me. 75% of the grapes planted in Rioja are Tempranillo, which produces wines of red fruits and firm tannins. Garnacha is grown in the warmer Rioja Baja, and adds alcohol and red fruit, liquorice aromas. Mazuelo (Carineña elsewhere in Spain and Carignan in France) gives black fruits and tannins, while Graciano, plantings of which have increased since its lowpoint in the 1970s, has attractive floral, perfumed aromas. The Colección Vivanco 4 Varietales 2010 ($70) from Dinastía Vivanco - which is not just a winery but also a museum and educational centre - combines all these fruity, perfumed elements with a powerful structure from its sixteen months in French oak. ✪✪✪✪✪
Inland from Barcelona in Catalunya, Priorat had all but been abandoned by the 1980s although wine has been made there since the 12th century. It's hilly with very steep slopes and stony slate soils (called llicorella), all of which makes growing vines there incredibly difficult. A group of winemakers took on the challenge of making wine there in the late 1980s which led to a revolution in quality, and now some of Spain's most exciting red (and white) wines are made in Priorat. Garnacha and Carineña, with small proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, produce intense, concentrated high-alcohol wines. Planetes de Nin is the project of young female dreadlocked winemaker Ester Nin. This is a classic Priorat (70% Garnacha, 30% Carineña; $45): deep red and black fruits, spice and French oak, and a fearless amount of brett with farmyard, earth, and animal aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪
The small hill of Priorat is surrounded by Montsant ("Holy Mountain"), which produces similar but less expensive wines. Finca l'Argata are a fairly new producer, but they practise some old-fashioned techniques: they're biodynamic, they crush the grapes by foot, only partially de-stem, mainly use old oak and concrete tanks, and don't fine or filter. The 2012 is 85% Garnacha and 15% Syrah ($30). It's quite taut and restrained, with red fruits and liquorice, and surprisingly different from the powerful bombshell of Priorat. ✪✪✪✪
Ribera del Duero
For a century and a half, Ribera del Duero was only known for one producer, Vega de Sicilia. That changed in the 1980s, when a wave of new producers started making wines on the high-altitude slopes above the river Duero, making it one of the most sought-after regions in Spain. Becoming part of the establishment doesn't suit everyone, however, and Alfredo Maestro refuses to work within the DO regulations. A self-taught winemaker since 1998, Maestro feels that contemporary Ribero del Duero producers use too much oak and limit themselves to one grape variety, Tinto Fino (Tempranillo). Instead, he seeks out old vines from traditional local varieties such as Garnacha and Albillo (a white variety), as well as Tinto Fino. He also refuses to use any chemicals in the making of his wine, including even sulphur. In the beautifully-labelled Lovamor ($28), the absence of sulphur is a little too noticeable. Made from one-hundred-year-old Albillo vines, it's a deep golden-yellow colour, heavily oxidative, and tastes much more like a cider than a wine. ✪✪✪ The Castrillo de Duero ($25) is much more successful; from seventy-year-old Tinto Fino vines and aged in neutral oak for 12 months, the wine has a deep, intense, tannic and fruit structure which is classic Ribera del Duero while refusing to call itself so. ✪✪✪✪✪
Castilla y Leon
Many producers in Ribera del Duero and neighbouring Rueda also classify their wines under Castilla y Leon Vino de la Tierra (the IGT level of classification which has more flexible rules). La Fábula Cebreros ($30) - another wine with a beautiful label - is made from one-hundred-year-old Garnacha (which isn't permitted in any of the local DOs) and is a wonderful expression of that grape. It's an intense, powerful, old-school Spanish wine that needs decanting. Leather, mushrooms, and quite a bit of brett eventually give way to dried strawberries, raspberries, and roses. ✪✪✪✪✪
Many of the wines we tasted are from areas with a long history and old vines, but made from young producers rediscovering the area. Ribeira Sacra ("holy riverbank") is another region undergoing a revival, although it's still small. The major grape is Mencía and again the vines can be up to one hundred years old, grown on steep, stony slopes, battered by rain from the Atlantic. There's an obvious Priorat connection in this revival and Dominio do Bibei's winemaker Javier Domingues has enlisted the help of Priorat producers used to difficult soils and slopes. Lalama ($30) is 90% Mencía, with a handful of Garnacha and other local grape varieties Brancellao and Mouraton. The 2011 is a very attractive wine, with floral, herbal, and red fruit aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪
Near Ribeira Sacra on the Portuguese border, Monterrei is another newly emerging region drawing on old, local varieties. Quinta da Muradella are one of the leading producers of this still small DO, and the Alanda ($33) is a blend of four varieties of different degrees of obscurity. Doña Blanca (which is called Síria in Portugal from where it probably originates) gives intense floral and orange aromas. Treixadura (Trajadura in Portugal) has apple and pear aromas and is best in a blend as it has low acidity. The wonderfully-named Monstruosa is even rarer and was rescued from extinction by Muradella; it has aromas of wild, alpine flowers. Finally, the wine also has Verdello (Verdelho in Portugal), which is in the blend for its acidity. The wine itself has extraordinarily intense citrus aromas of oranges and lemons, along with orange blossom. A refreshingly high acidity means that it is a very good food wine - we drank this with a chicken, carrot, leek, and turnip stew. ✪✪✪✪✪
All of the above wines come from north-central Spain, where either the sea or altitude moderate the climate. Once as far south as Madrid and beyond, the climate is generally too hot for quality wine production. The area around Jerez in hot, dry Andalucia is one historic exception. Close to the Mediterranean, more rain falls than in northern Rioja; most of it is during the winter, with the irrigation system introduced by the Moors over a thousand years ago storing the water for the dry summer months. Sherry is one of the contradictions emblematic of Spain. One of the country's best known wines, it was for the most part created for the British (who still drink almost as much as the Spanish). With its oxidative aromas, it's old-fashioned and out of time; nonetheless the region is now creating some of the most vibrant, evocative, and affordable wines of anywhere in the world. I would say that, because I am a huge sherry fan - regardless, I dare anyone to resist the attractive aromas of lightly baked apples, salt, and almonds of this fino, priced at under $20. ✪✪✪✪✪✪